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AIA Center for Communities by Design Charts New Future for NOLA’s Elysian Fields Corridor

Drawing on the avenue’s rich and diverse history, architects and urban planners suggest creating a more walkable and green neighborhood

By Ariella Cohen

In 1776 a Spanish geographer surveying New Orleans, then a Spanish colony, wrote of “advantages [to be] gained from the slope which the land has towards the interior.”

The geographer, Francisco Bouligny, was referring to what was then a sparsely populated territory just northeast of the bustling commercial area now known as the French Quarter, between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. Advising the Spanish monarchs on opportunities in their newly acquired colony, he concluded it would be advantageous to settle families along the ridges that rose above the lake, and noted opportunities for commerce in the only straight thoroughfare connecting the two bodies of open water.

More than two centuries later, the Elysian Fields corridor connecting the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain continues to awaken the imagination of visitors. That power was seen Wednesday evening when a team of national experts assembled by the AIA Center for Communities by Design released a report outlining the corridor’s tremendous potential.

"Elysian Fields is an amazing corridor, a tremendous microcosm of the city of New Orleans," group leader Todd Scott, AIA, said. "Elysian Fields can become a model for the economic revitalization for the whole city."

The five-mile avenue — still the only straight line between the river and lake — is named for Avenue des Champs Elysées in Paris. Since the early 1800s, the street has served as a major point of entry for the city, and because of that, it’s home to some of the city’s oldest architecture outside of the French Quarter, said Richard Campanella, a Tulane University geographer who devoted a chapter to Elysian Fields in his book Geographies of New Orleans: Urban Fabrics Before The Storm. By the mid 20th century, housing had replaced industry as the avenue’s main draw. Thanks to an extensive water drainage and pumping system, green lawns and ranch-style rooflines transformed even the most vulnerable low-lying areas into densely populated havens for working and middle-class families, black and white.

The failure of the federal storm protection system following Hurricane Katrina changed all that, sending more than 10 feet of floodwater surging over homes, schools and businesses, decimating the neighborhood. Nearly six years later, abandoned homes and shops litter water-damaged streets. While more than 11,000 households have returned to the study area, some 9,000 blighted properties remain, according to the report released Wednesday by the AIA Center for Communities Design, which has completed such community design projects for free in 145 American cities since 1967. The AIA community design team chose Elysian Fields because of its potential to serve as a beacon for new development, as well as its historic, cultural, and geographic importance.

At a presentation held at Dillard University and attended by area residents, Scott and the team described opportunities to reinvent the corridor using fixes such as replacing dangerous multi-light intersections with safer traffic roundabouts and injecting more green into the asphalt-heavy landscape.

They recommended slowing vehicular traffic to encourage walkability, building small parks and activating the wide street medians with gardens, public art, or recreational amenities. The suggestion to transform a busy commercial intersection with a two-lane roundabout was presented as a lo-fi solution fit for New Orleans’ tempestuous climate and continental history. “When you have storms, you have power outages, [and] roundabouts work” said Paula Reeves, a community transportation expert from Washington state. Plus, she added, they originated in Paris, “so it’s yours to reclaim.”

The report was released to the public in the hopes that individuals and local stakeholders will use it as a resource to aid them in community planning efforts. “But what happens,” Scott said “is up to the people who live here.”

To read the full report on Elysian Fields click here.


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